Public Safety & Justice

Wisconsin Legislation Would Create Rules for License-Plate Readers

December 4, 2013

By Ashley Luthern and Kevin Crowe

As police departments throughout Wisconsin use new technology to collect millions of photos of license plates each year, a new bill circulating the state Capitol would establish clear guidelines on how that information can be used and stored.

Automated license-plate readers are devices that continuously scan license plates of parked or moving vehicles, then store photos of the plates -- along with date, time and location -- in ever-growing databases.

That information is stored for a varying amount of time, days to years, depending on the agency. Police departments say the data can be used to find stolen cars and solve other crimes. Privacy advocates argue the practice goes too far in revealing detailed information about a person's whereabouts or daily routine.

The proposed bill would limit the technology's use by state and local governments, as well as law enforcement agencies, to only cases of an active criminal investigation of an identified suspect.

The proposal was drafted by state Reps. David Craig (R-Big Bend) and Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee) and state Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst), who are seeking co-sponsors through Thursday.

The bill also mandates that no information obtained through the plates may be shared with a third party that is not a government entity, and that all data collected must be destroyed within 48 hours unless it is needed for further criminal investigation or prosecution.

"Devices like this can collect millions upon millions of pieces of information, including license plates and their locations when they are logged," Craig said. "There is the potential for those to be abused and misused by an individual operating outside department policies."

The plate readers have come under fire from privacy advocates and organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which issued a report on the readers this summer.

"We've got objections to the overzealous over-use of automated license plate readers and the matching of databases that goes on as agencies are looking at information on millions of innocent Americans," said Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the ACLU of Wisconsin.

Ahmuty said the ACLU supports the proposed Wisconsin legislation.

Others have said language in the draft bill goes too far, hindering an important tool for police.

"The current language makes the (automated license-plate readers) useless for law enforcement purposes," said Michael Tobin, executive director of the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission, which will discuss the Milwaukee Police Department's revised policy on the plate readers Thursday.

Craig said the bill is still in draft stage, and he and other legislators have been meeting with local police chiefs to get feedback on the bill. Already he plans to change language in the bill as a result of those meetings, such as ensuring the plate readers could be used for Amber Alerts and other emergency situations.

He also is open to lengthening the storage time from the proposed 48 hours, but added: "I don't think we should be talking in terms of years, but weeks, maybe months."

Readers in Milwaukee

The Milwaukee Police Department has been using the technology since 2008 and has about 9.6 million photos of license plates. The department has declined to release how many license-plate readers are in use.

To gauge collection on an individual level, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter requested his own license-plate reader data. The department released records that showed when and where his vehicle had been photographed by the readers 42 times between May and November.

The MPD has no firm policy on how long those records are stored, instead relying on broad state public-records guidelines. The police department is working with the City Information Management Committee to determine a standard storage length, as is the city's Department of Public Works, which collects images of license plates for parking enforcement.

The MPD will present on Thursday a revised policy governing the use of the technology to the Fire and Police Commission, though the commission is expected to wait to vote on it until Dec. 19, Tobin said.

"This policy can generate a good deal of public interest because it's a legitimate issue about privacy concerns," Tobin said.

The revised department policy provides specific guidelines on who can see the data from the license-plate readers and how it can be used.

"How long are we going to keep that (data)? That's yet to be resolved," Tobin said. "MPD is going to be recommending a six-month schedule, but again that could be subject to some variation."

The discussion on time limits for storing millions of license plate images collected by city employees comes as the DPW is expected to increase its use of the readers by switching to a virtual night-parking permit system Dec. 20.

The DPW will use license-plate reader cameras to confirm the permits, identify vehicles that have been reported stolen and recognize vehicles with outstanding violations. The ACLU has raised concerns about the DPW's plan to share that information with the MPD, saying there appears to be no firewall between the two departments.

Solving crimes

Police say data generated by the readers is useful for solving crimes.

In October, officers used data gathered by the plate readers to locate a man who was charged with a felony after failing to meet with his probation officer, said Lt. Mark Stanmeyer, department spokesman.

The officers knew the license plate number of the car the man was known to drive and analyzed the department's data to locate an area where that car was frequently parked. When officers checked the area, they saw the man getting into the car they had identified. He was arrested a short time later, Stanmeyer said.

In another incident in August 2012, a woman who was the victim of an armed robbery on the south side of Milwaukee gave police a partial plate and description of a vehicle she said was involved. Police were able to use the plate-reader system to find the vehicle and develop a suspect, who ultimately was identified and arrested. In 2011, one officer in a car equipped with a license-plate reader recovered 125 stolen vehicles, Stanmeyer said.

Setting guidelines

The ACLU and Craig both have highlighted the Minnesota State Patrol as a model for using the technology. The patrol purges license-plate data after 48 hours.

"Because of the unique nature of the data, it wasn't really addressed in the data retention policy and that's why we developed our policy," said Lt. Eric Roeske, public information officer for the Minnesota State Patrol.

The patrol had one plate reader for several years, but now has eight in use in the Twin Cities metro area. Depending on traffic volume and other factors, the devices collect an estimated 4,000 to 9,000 license plates over an eight- to 10-hour shift, Roeske said.

While many police department use them primarily for locating stolen vehicles or wanted individuals, the state patrol focuses on traffic safety and removing uninsured drivers from the streets, he said. The ACLU recommends license-plate readers be used only by law enforcement agencies when the data is relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation.

Craig, for his part, does not think parking enforcement is an appropriate use of the technology.

"It should be used for serious infractions, search and rescue, real emergencies and real criminal investigations not administrative infractions," Craig said. "We are talking about people's constitutional liberties here. Should we be doing that just in the name of parking enforcement or past-due speeding tickets, I do not think so."

Craig said he plans to formally introduce the bill before Christmas with bipartisan support.

"This issue is an area where both sides of the aisle can come together," he said. "It's about civil liberties and private information protection."

(c)2013 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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